Reader Request: Being a Savvy Shopper on eBay


Martha e-mailed me this question:

You have so many wonderful handbags, and your posts often note that they are from eBay. Do you have any tips for hunting for bags on eBay? Do you search for a particular bag, or do you search bags generally to see what turns up? How do you know you are getting an authentic bag and not a knock-off?

I posted a while back about my own handbag shopping practices and choices, but Martha’s question reminded me that my ancient post on how to shop on eBay was due for an overhaul and refresh. I have nabbed some incredible deals on eBay. Deals so good they make me blush. Gorgeous designer boots at a fifth of their retail price, vintage coats for $10, necklaces that garner dozens of comments every time they’re worn, many lovely handbags … and the list goes on.

Do I have some magical skill set that allows me to ferret out these deals? Nope. Are my methods top secret and difficult to employ? No way. Do I troll eBay on a daily basis looking for deals … well, sort of, but we’ll get to that. Bottom line is that my eBay finds are equal parts persistence, patience, and luck. And I’d be happy to tell you exactly how I utilize this amazing shopping resource so that you, too, can score deals so amazing they’ll make you blush.

But first, a quick summary – because I believe that much of the fear that surrounds bidding and buying on eBay is based in a misunderstanding of how the site functions. eBay is a community of buyers and sellers loosely governed by the rules of the site.

When you are looking at a product entry, you may be buying from a company or a collective, but in many cases you will be buying from an individual. Someone just like you. Sellers can be as detailed or vague as they want when they list a product for sale, and set their own prices. You can always contact a seller if you have a question, want to see more photos, or need more information about an item, but they may or may not respond in a timely manner.

Some products can be bought immediately at a set price – look for the “Buy it Now” label if you prefer this route – but most products are sold in auction format. You enter a price you’re willing to pay and, if no one enters a higher price that THEY’RE willing to pay, the item is sold to you. (I won’t bore you with more nitty-gritty details of pricing, buying, or consumer protection as eBay has fantastic resources on all of these topics. Check their eBay University Learning Center for great tutorials.)

But before we dig into buying on eBay – and a few guidelines for buying safely and avoiding fakery – let’s take a look at techniques for FINDING stuff you want on eBay.

Saved searches

This is my primary eBaying tool. If you go to the search bar and type in “Frye Veronica Slouch boot,” pick the “Clothing, shoes, and accessories” category from the drop-down, and hit enter, you’ll get a whole bunch of listings.

ebay search

Right next to where it says “355 results found” you’ll see a tiny green link that says “Follow this search.” When you hover over it, a dialog appears telling you that you can elect to have eBay perform this search for you automatically. So long as you’re already signed into your eBay account, you can click that little link and have that exact same search dumped into your e-mail inbox every day.

saved search

You can edit your saved searches by hovering over “My eBay” at the top right corner of your screen and selecting “Followed searches.” (Click the image below to enlarge)

followed searches

Once you’re looking at your list of saved searches, you can view the items currently encompassed by each search or edit your search parameters. Under “More actions” you can opt to unfollow a search, or just stop receiving the daily e-mail roundups in your inbox but keep the saved search in your queue.

Saved searches work best for VERY specific searches that include product names, brand names, and detailed descriptors. They’re ideal if you lusted after a particular pair of shoes, missed out, and are hoping to find them six months later. Creating general saved searches can be beneficial, too, because they’ll give you a starting point.

Refine your searches

To keep yourself from getting incredibly overwhelmed, I always recommend refining by broad category at the very least. If you’re starting your search from the eBay homepage, enter your search terms and then select your category from the drop-down to narrow the field a bit. (Refer to the first screen cap under “Saved searches” to see where to enter your terms and find this drop-down.)

Let’s use “Banana Republic skirt” as an example. Type that into the search bar, then select “Clothing, shoes, and accessories” as your category. At time of writing, this search returns 7,199 results. So, ya know, DANG. But don’t decide you’ll never find that specific BR skirt you seek! Start refining. Begin with category at the top right, in this case “Women’s Clothing” which brings you down to a mere 7,190. Picking “Skirts” under “Women’s Clothing” gets you down to a very manageable 6,943. (Ha ha.)

refined search 1

From there, the real fun begins. Work your way down that left column until you’ve got exactly what you want. Size type, skirt style, length, color material, condition … enter as many as you can. If a search criterion is collapsed, click “see all” to the right of it and a dialog will pop up with more options. If you select size 8 but also want to include size 10, click “see all” and you’ll have the options to add more.

So if you want to keep your saved searches broad and end up with hundreds of new options in your inbox each day, you can click through to them, sort by “Time: newly listed” so that you’re seeing the newest entries first, and then refine using the criteria in that left column. And, of course, you can refine your searches anytime you shop on eBay – just punch your search terms into the bar, scan the results, and start adding parameters from the left rail.

Watch items of interest

If you find an item that you are interested in but not quite prepared to bid upon, you can “watch” it. Right below the blue “Add to cart” button is a little drop-down that says “Add to watch list.” Click it, and the listing will get saved to your My eBay area.


Access your watch list by going to My eBay (top right) and choosing “Watch list.” You have to manually visit your watch list, but keeping items in this area allows you to observe them from afar, see if other folks are bidding, and contemplate your decision to bid. 

watch list 2

Decide on a bidding strategy

Now that you’ve found what you’re looking for, you need to decide how you’re going to approach bidding. Buying on eBay can mean not knowing until the last second if you’ll get to own something, and that rush of excitement can cause some rash decision-making, so it’s important to settle on a few parameters before you begin bidding. My own bidding strategy is generally to enter the largest dollar amount I’m willing to pay for a particular item, and leave it to the fates. Sometimes that means I get outbid by one cent during the last 10 seconds of an auction, but c’est la vie. You can certainly try to win by hovering at your computer as the clock ticks down, but server speeds, Internet connections, and countless other factors can interfere with you getting that last bid placed in time. There are services like Auction Sniper that will place bids for you at the last minute … but I haven’t found them helpful.

Think before you bid

When you enter that number, you are committing to paying your chosen amount should you win. NEVER bid more than you can afford to pay. Even if you believe you have no chance at winning. You never know what will happen – items that appear in-demand can fall out of favor, listings can fly under the radar, all sorts of factors may end up conspiring to make that vintage necklace unexpectedly yours. So only bid what you can afford to pay.

Investigate your seller

eBay offers its customers a number of different ways to learn about its sellers. The main one is feedback rating. Every seller has a feedback rating next to her/his username, and you can find this information on every eBay listing.


You’ll see the seller’s username (here it is sasuse66) followed by a number in parentheses. This number shows how many eBay transactions this user has completed. If a seller has less than five transactions, most eBayers will be wary – buyers and sellers alike. The colored stars are just shorthand. sasuse66 here has a red star, which means a feedback score between 1,000 and 4,999. Below the number and star is the percentage of positive feedback.

As a point of reference, if a seller has less than 95% positive feedback, I am unlikely to bid. This is not a hard and fast rule, though. If you click on the transaction number (3213 here), you’ll see a breakdown of the seller’s feedback with more details. Sometimes negative feedback is given in error, or transactions are still in dispute. From this page, you can see what the seller has to say in response to negative feedback, which can be very enlightening. But be sure to do some digging if you’re looking at a seller with a low feedback rating, as that person or group may be problematic to work with and buy from.

Be patient

I bought these shoes off eBay about a year and a half after they were sold out in stores. It took that long for them to surface in my size and in a price range that suited me. You MAY be able to find something immediately, but you may not. Wait it out.

Be thorough

Now, this is the one that may make some folks cringe. If you really want to be a successful eBay consumer, look at all of the search results that fit your criteria. All of them. I was on a quest for a cognac leather jacket a couple of months ago and I probably looked at 250 listings every time I searched. There were loads of dupes and I could cruise through quickly, but scanning the lot of them helped me to know I’d seen everything that was available.

Be smart about price and value

Before you bid on a product, put its brand and style name into Google and make sure it’s not being sold elsewhere and/or for less. As a free market model, prices are “all that the traffic will bear,” meaning if someone is willing to pay it, it’s a fair price. Just because it’s on eBay doesn’t mean it’s automatically a bargain. Shop smart and do your homework.

More than that, remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. eBay sellers can be punished for false advertising – claiming that they’re selling genuine Louis Vuitton purses when they’re really peddling fakes – through negative feedback and, eventually, being kicked off the site. Also in eBay disputes dealt with through PayPal, the buyer nearly always wins. But such battles can be long and drawn out, so you’re better to just be cautious. Classic example: Alexander McQueen skull scarves. There are about 10 trillion knockoffs on eBay for around $30. Buy it Now $30, not starting bid. Nowhere on those entries does it say, “guaranteed authentic” or “genuine,” but those sellers seldom say “designer inspired” or “faux” either so it’s up to you to make the call. Seem too good to be true? It probably is. Here are some red flags:

  • The item is brand new, not vintage, but incredibly cheap compared to original retail price
  • Has no damage or marks that might cause the price to go down, but incredibly cheap
  • The item is far, far cheaper than similar or identical items also for sale on eBay
  • The item is designer, but vendor offers no proof – receipts, hangtags, photos of labels, etc.
  • Vendor uses lots of stock images or product shots from other sites like Zappos or Nordstrom, but includes no actual photos of the item being sold
  • The vendor has a low feedback rating

Buying knockoffs might seem like a constant danger, but you wanna know what my own biggest eBaying mistake is? Bidding on stuff and thinking, “Oh, I’ll NEVER win THAT.” I have ignored my own advice more times than I care to admit. And although it has brought me some killer shoes and amazing deals, it has also forced me to scramble for money I wasn’t truly planning to spend. Because eBay has an element of gambling to it, and because luck and randomness figure in, it’s best to impose as much of your own logic and reason on the system as possible. And I struggle with that sometimes.

Also remember that purchasing via eBay is always riskier than buying from a regular online retailer. Always. So if you’re searching for something that needs to fit exactly right, or needs to fit exact specifications, I’d try elsewhere. Shopping on eBay is fun and rewarding, but transactions can and do go wrong in ways that they seldom will with mass retailers.

That said, eBay is also a great place to look for weird, unusual, slightly damaged, past season, or otherwise hard-to-find stuff at great prices. I’ve put everything from “Bohemian garnet” to “badger shirt” into that search bar and had a whale of a time poring over the results! And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve landed some outrageous deals – specific, lusted-after items that might never have turned up thrifting. So for all its risks, I do adore eBay.

How do you eBay?

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

Originally posted 2014-03-11 06:05:53.

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12 Responses to “Reader Request: Being a Savvy Shopper on eBay”

  1. Texas Aggie Mom

    Wow – what a great primer on eBay, which I wish I had seen before I made my first foray into their site this past weekend! I’m working my way through your book and had identified ‘blazers’ as one of my staples that I need more of. It seemed like a good idea to check out eBay for some good deals, but I didn’t initially realize that you HAVE to purchase the item if you are the highest bidder. Nothing has arrived yet, so I’ll post again when I see how they look in person, but I scored both a win (I think!) – tan Ralph Lauren blazer with horse-head buttons in flawless condition for $15 and a new closet orphan – a Mossimo (Target) cheap, unlined jacket that I shouldn’t have even bid on for $20. My third find was a tweed Calvin Klein jacket with some interesting detailing – I have my fingers crossed that it’s something I can actually wear. Oh well, that first shopping session was a wake-up call, and combined with this excellent post, I’ll be much better prepared in the future!

    • Texas Aggie Mom

      Just received the first of the items I bought Sunday – a new-with-tags Tahari blazer in flawless condition that fits perfectly! The fabric is a seasonless black and white woven that I can wear ten months out of the year in my warmer climate. Total cost with shipping was less than $20 – so far, so good!

      • Texas Aggie Mom

        After receiving all the items I found on eBay last weekend, it has been a positive shopping experience overall, and full of surprises. The RL blazer fit perfectly and was in new condition, but the color doesn’t look very good on me. The right scarf or sweater with it may fix that, and I know I’ll end up wearing it somewhere, just do I can say “Can you believe I got this for $15 on eBay!” The CK jacket I expected to love was very awkward in person – waaaaay too short-waisted, even though the overall length should have worked for me. The color was also way off from my monitor – turned out to include hot pink, which I won’t wear, so that one is being returned. The biggest surprise was the Mossimo jacket, which I assumed I would regret; turns out it’s my favorite! The fabric is great and the style is very flattering and versatile. Only one problem: it was waaaay too small! But I liked it so much I immediately jumped on eBay and found an identical one two sizes larger and ordered it. So far, so good!

  2. Jamie

    I started selling on Ebay last year to help clean out my closet. It’s been fun to get some cash for nice items that I just don’t wear anymore. I also scored some items that I’d been eying a few seasons ago that had disappeared from circulation, but now miraculously are available again! Lots of times rarely worn, just hanging in someone else’s closet.
    One suggestion I have is that if you are bidding and it’s getting to be too expensive for your budget, don’t worry if you won’t get the item, stop bidding, another same or very similar item will resurface in the near future, and you’ll probably get a better deal by waiting.
    Also, if you end up with something you won on Ebay you don’t like…put it back on Ebay! You know it had some bidding interest, so those other bidders might buy it back from you!

  3. Erin O'Brien

    I have been using eBay for YEARS for my shopping.

    It has also been a great place to find pieces that I saw and loved in-store, but could stand to wait a couple years until it eventually (somehow) ended up on eBay at a much lower price. For example, in 2010 I saw this amazing plaid sweetheart dress at Banana Republic — it was part of their Monogram collection. The retail was $225. I have had a saved search for years, and finally two weeks ago I came across the dress in my size. Get this, I got it for $16 — and that’s including shipping! The major downside to this is having to be patient, but in the name of spending money wisely it’s worth it to me.

    Great post!

  4. Elizabeth Houghton

    I’ve bought on EBay for a couple of years now and so far haven’t had any bad experiences (fingers crossed–there’s an item on its way to me now). I’d just add that I always use PayPal for purchases.

  5. 33

    thank you for this detailed eBay buying guide. I bought only two items on eBay, one a success and the other a bust (never got it and seller got hostile when PayPal favored my side). I want to sell my shoes on eBay because I have a lot of size 6.5 and 7 shoes I can’t wear anymore (lost weight and shoe size down to 6). I wonder if you have sold on eBay what your experience was.

    • Jamie

      I’ve had a lot of good experiences selling shoes, those are some of the best sellers because they easily fit multiple people! Just need to take pictures from all angles, front back, tops, soles, and they’ll usually sell quickly.

      • 33

        thank you Jamie. I thought so, too (re: size). Many are practically new (have too many pairs of shoes therefore they didn’t have a chance to get worn down). I hope people won’t mind shipping charge because shoes are heavier than clothing items or jewelry.

        • Jamie

          I think its pretty standard that people are OK with the shipping. I’ve tried to reduce shipping costs with lighter packaging. For example, cost is the same between 1 and 2 pounds. And less if it’s below 1 pound. If i have a ligtweight pair of shoes that are less than a pound without the box, I’ll try to package them so the whole shippig weight is a pound or less. It can save up to $6 in shipping costs!

  6. DorothyP

    I think is vastly superior to Ebay, and your money goes to a good cause, too.

  7. Kitty

    I might have already posted this somewhere on your blog…..I’m an avid ebayer – buying and selling clothing. About three years ago I started replacing nearly everything in my closet through thrifting and ebaying and I couldn’t be happier! My tip is that ebay helps me focus on filling my closet gaps. For instance, for years I didn’t have any plain navy blue tops, nor camisoles, tanks, etc. Every time I got dressed – I was frustrated since navy is one of my base colors. Such a simple thing and season after season I never solved the problem Now that I ebay so much, I sort the listings and search through only navy blue tops in my size range. This keeps me from getting distracted and looking at things that are much more exciting to buy. Then I bid on several options because of the super low prices. I try them out for fit and comfort – only keeping those I like the best and writing down the brands and sizes so I can search for more in the future. This trick has made an incredible difference for me.